Sunday, September 30, 2007

“Oh, It Hurts Me So To Watch My Baby Grow Up In Pictures”

Our youngest is one and a half. She’s an adorable baby, just like our other three children were. My wife sent me a picture recently of her all curled up and sleeping in a cardboard box she had been playing in. It reminded me of the few short days I spent with my family before the tearful goodbye at the airport. My wife and my oldest daughter had only sobbed one other time like that. It was the second time my angel-wife and innocent kids had to drop me off at the airport and send me off to the Middle East.

Anyway, since the Army Reserves was kind enough to give me two full weeks from the time they notified me that I was going to Iraq to the report date, I cherished every minute I could with my wife and children. At one point, after coddling my baby girl, I told my wife, “Of course I’ll miss you and each of the kids tremendously, but it’s like torture being away from my baby girl. I’ll be away from her at the greatest time. I can’t communicate well with our three-year-old son on the phone, and I can’t even speak with her at all.” And, then I added, “Can you put her in a box and ship her to me?”

A friend of mine from church back home, Trent, did one of the most charitable things ever. He gave me an ipod to take with me to Iraq—a really nice one. When I gratefully thanked him, he said something to the effect of, “well, consider it my small sacrifice for what all you soldiers are doing for us back here at home.” That ipod’s been a life saver, a real morale booster.

Since I’m not much of a computer-literate kind of guy, Trent and Doug loaded it full of songs and movies for me. Trent put my small music collection on it and added some of his personal collection.

I mostly listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and classical music. Since that musical selection isn’t too good for working out with in the dustiest, dirtiest, most incredible free-weight gym I’ve ever seen in the world!—and it’s right here in al Anbar, I might add—I put the mega-gigabyte ipod on song ‘shuffle’ during the limited times I get to pump iron.

So there I was listening to a wide selection and variety of musical genres, pumping 7, 8, 9 grueling repetitions on the inclined bench-press. I might admit here that since it’s an Average Joe’s gym, without frills, bells, whistles, or any working treadmills (blame that on the two-inches of Iraqi dust), or anyone to impress, I was ‘going light’ on the weights.

Okay, okay, here’s a bit of a history (and maybe an excuse or two). When I was younger, I used to work at a gym and help people with their personal fitness plans. I’ve been in good shape all my life. But I honestly can’t keep up with my very fit and buff younger brothers anymore. They’ve called me ‘old man’ and have referred to me as their dad; like that obscure camera lady at the photo studio did a few Christmases ago. The bad thing is my brothers were ribbing me for dressing like an old guy just hours before we went to get our group picture. Gosh, I’m not that old. But then again…

I bought a trampoline for the kids two days before I left to come here. After literally five bounces and a weak attempt at a unique trick I used to do well, I think I tore a back muscle and pulled a rib out of place. Seriously. Along with all this too-much, too-heavy body armor, which totally aggravates my back, I think I’m coming to the realization that I’m getting more refined and mature on the inside, but more less like I used to be on the outside. I quickly learned I’m a has-been and a used-to-be on the trampoline. My mind thought I could, but my body said it had other plans.

Oh, my aching back!

So there I was, pumping iron. I felt a bit decrepit, but tried to maintain a macho image in front of the few youthful, sinewy Marines. I had to fake it. I hoped, perhaps haplessly, on the fact that since all the weights were marked in kilograms, they probably would think that I was lifting more than I really was. It may have been pointless, though. Old ladies in swim class carry heavier weights than that. So, I did the next best thing any skilled military tactician would do. I used the corners of the door walls to my advantage and hid from their view. I think I fooled them.

Macho me huffing and puffing in a good way right after finishing a set (hidden, mind you), strutting about and sticking out my chest, when all of a sudden, a song I’d never heard before begun playing in the tiny headsets in my ears.

I had to look down to read who was playing. It was the country band Alabama. The song was ‘In Pictures.’

Here are the words:

I've got her photograph on a stand by my bed;
Two on the mantle and thousands in my head.
I can't believe how fast she's growing;
It ain't supposed to be like this.

Every time I look at her I see how much I've missed.

I missed her first steps, her first words;
And ‘I love you Daddy’ is something I seldom heard.
Oh it hurts me so to watch my girl grow up in pictures.

I send the money down, do my best to do my part;
But it can't compare to what I pay with my heart.
There's still one unanswered question
that weighs heavy on my mind:

Will she ever understand the reasons why?

I missed her first steps, her first words;
And ‘I love you Daddy’ is something I seldom heard.
Oh it hurts me so to watch my girl grow up in pictures.

It takes all I have to keep the tears inside.
What I wouldn't give if I could turn back time.

I missed her first steps, her first words;
And ‘I love you Daddy’ is something I seldom heard.
Oh it hurts me so to watch my baby grow up in pictures.

Several thoughts ran through my mind as I listened to the song over and over and over again. For one thing, I think the song was written about a dad estranged from his girl because of divorce. It sounds like he even mentions ‘child support.’ I thought it was interesting, then, that there would be so many parallels to my situation.

I’m a million miles away; half way across the earth. I’m not here by choice, per se. I’m here because I’m an American-loving solider who initially enlisted in the military nearly 12 years ago (as one of the older guys in boot camp, I might add). I joined after the first Gulf War, and way before 9/11 or this war. I’m here in Iraq because back then I took an oath to preserve the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic; and to follow my Commander and Chief. I’m devoted to that oath because I love America, and I love the Constitution and all it stands for.

Well, that aside, as I worked out in this rickety, dilapidated so-called gym, in the middle of a war zone, I thought the song was all about divorce and the pain of separation. Growing up for many years in a single-parent home, I have some insight on the pains associated with not having a dad around. Little boys long for a dad to play catch with and go fishing with. I did. Thankfully, my wonderful uncles and good church leaders stepped in and became surrogates at times when I needed positive role models and friendship most.

My biggest fears with this deployment is that my sons and my daughters—we have two of each—won’t understand. I’m not here because I can’t get along with my wife. I’m not here because we’re ‘separated’ or getting a divorce. I’m not sending money back home because I’m obligated by a court decision to do so. I’m not abandoning my children. I know how that feels and I don’t want to have my kids think that’s the way it is.

Cole told my wife last week, “I want dad come our house.” Again, tonight he told her, “I want him here.” I want to be there little buddy.

I wasn’t gone too long in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom when my wife anxiously told me about several words my daughter could say. On the phone she repeated what my wife would say, ‘Daddy,’ and ‘love you.’ Those tender words melted my heart. She couldn’t speak when I left. Now she knows two dozen words. She’s growing up so fast.

Back in the gym I heard the words:

I missed her first steps, her first words;
And ‘I love you Daddy’ is something I seldom heard.
Oh it hurts me so to watch my girl grow up in pictures.

It takes all I have to keep the tears inside.

I felt myself staring to get emotional, so I cut my work-out short and made a mad dash for the door instead of possibly crying in a tough guy’s gym in front of battle-hardened Marines. I got more exercise during the brisk walk to the exit than I did during the whole time in the gym, so the quick escape was good for something at least.

I hadn’t listened to that song since.

When my wife and I were Instant Messaging (IM) today, I plugged in my new recent purchase: a webcam. The image was grainy. It made me look really bald. I’m receding a little, but this was ridiculous. (Is that considered denial?)

Then it happened. The IM transcript read like this:

My Incredible Wife: Josslyn just saw you and smiled. (I smiled and blew a kiss into the camera.)

My Incredible Wife: She got all excited and said, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.

That made my day.

After exchanging many more smiles and blowing more air kisses, I quickly told my wife about the song ‘In Pictures.’ I grabbed my ipod and listened to the song several more times today.

I’m not ashamed. I’m a middle-aged man, and I cry. Why do I cry? Because I’m the luckiest husband and the most fortunate dad in the world.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Fleas, Rats and Port-a-Johns

The old saying, ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite’ has taken on a new meaning for me. There’s an infestation of fleas in our sleeping areas. Flea bites can be compared to mosquito bites. But there must be a pterodactyl-sized mosquito or one Usama bin Laden-like flea around here somewhere. I thought I was going to grow another whole knee-cap from the swelling on my leg last week.

It’s those pesky rodents. They attract the filthy little bugs. Before all of the biting started, I saw a mouse sprint across the cement floor of an old Iraqi building we live in. I affectionately named him ‘Speedy.’ But after he left some droppings on my boots the other day, I’m inclined to think he’s probably a rat. When I’m on convoys out among the people here, the kids and many adults wave to us. But, as evidenced by my former quasi-pet, I’m certain the rats don’t want us here. (Pun intended.)

The other day we visited al Asad, an American base and the place where President Bush met with Sheik Sattar ten days before he was assassinated. As we drove by what equaled the most run-down trailer park squalor ever found—anywhere—in the U.S., I found myself longing to have a home like that here. “Oh,” I uttered aloud, “wouldn’t it be great to live in a place like that?” Inside the Humvee, I could hear the soldiers moaning in concurrence.

Let me tell you about my room.

Imagine a large, square, empty room. Now invite a group of kindergartners to design a floor plan to put in 15 rooms, give or take 7 or 8. Give several underpaid foreign laborers (from outside of Iraq), who have absolutely no idea of how to build anything, hammers, nails, 2 x 4s, several sheets of ¼-inch plywood, as well as the blueprints the kindergartners made; add multiple health code and basic electric safety violations, and, walaa! you have my living space.

OSHA would have a coronary.

There’s a hallway straight down the middle and unequal-sized rooms with plywood doors on either side. There’s a two-foot gap on the bottom of my wall—plenty of room for rats the size of Saint Bernard’s to run through. A four foot gap on the ceiling facing the hallway helps the ventilation. The smell of sweaty soldiers working all day in the hot, dusty climate reeks to high heaven. My room is about the size of my bed back home. I miss it. My bed, I mean. Of course, I miss other things too, my wife, my kids, et al.

But at least I have my own room. I am in no way complaining, especially not after having lived in open bays and tents for two months with zero privacy and a cot during the initial, torturous train up.

I don’t mind going out to the Port-a-John toilets. It reminds me of the outhouse at the family cabin. So, being in Iraq is like camping, really. The only difference is people are trying to kill you, you’re not with your family or friends, and it’s not fun in any sense of the word.

But, hey, I have Internet. How great is that?! Of course, it’s less high-speed and more half-speed/sometimes slower than dial-up. Regardless, I thank the Lord for all these great things. My friends over here in 2003-04 had it a million times worse: no where to sleep, no where to shower, zero privacy, MRE-meals everyday for two months straight, no contact and no mail from home for weeks on end. (Thanks, Ray.)

No, I have it pretty good. In fact, a while ago I had running water in my room, that is until the A/C got fixed! I almost unconsciously now avoid saying ‘it died,’ instead I use the phrase, ‘it’s broken.’ It’s a war thing, I guess. The water leak from the broken A/C attracted a lizard I caught my first morning here. I caught him and let him go outside.

Lizards are welcome. Rats, fleas, mosquitoes, and other pesky critters, to include repulsive and ultra-annoying terrorists, need to go dig a hole and bury themselves in it. I’m sure you can think of worse things than that! I know I can.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When It's Their Time To Go, I Cannot Prevent It

We meet together on Sunday’s as members of our small church group, all dressed in camouflage and wielding weapons of war. I’m an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, a.k.a. the Mormons. You may recognize a few names of persons who go to my church, Mitt Romney, Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch, in the political circles; Steve Young or Shawn Bradley in athletics. We come in all different shapes and sizes; we’re Republicans and Democrats and Independents. Only some of us have horns.

As I gave the opening prayer in church recently, I felt inspired to pray in behalf of the people of Iraq, that their land can be blessed and their situations improved. I prayed that they could have peace and hope! Curtiss, an NCIS agent, gave the lesson on revelation. He mentioned that my prayer was a revelation to him. He has often prayed for his own safety, the safety of his men and the others around him, but now he feels he needs to change up the way he prays.

I felt—and feel—the exact same way. I am going to change how I offer prayers and I want to ask my family to do likewise. I appreciate very much their prayers in my behalf, but I feel strongly we need to pray for the people here. Only then will the situation improve and, in addition, the coalition forces will be safe. I pray for the wars to cease. (I write that as it sounds like giant U.S.-delivered ordnance has landed not too far from us here.)

I felt on Sunday during the passing of the sacrament that every bullet, every bomb fragment, every non-battle related injury is in the Lord’s hands. He has the power to allow it; He has the power to stop it. We can do all we can to prevent it, but that might not be enough. He can prevent it. He knows all things. He knows the future. He controls all things. Angels are at his disposal to intervene in our behalf.

But still, numerous good people get injured. Many also have been and will be killed. I, too, may die or get injured. I don’t know. I may arrange the convoy in such a way that certain people may be killed or get injured all because I made out the seating arrangement and vehicle placement in a particular way. I selected some soldiers to go while I chose others to stay behind. Is that really my burden and load to carry?

Even though I might not think of it when or if the worst should occur, it was the Lord who chose them, not me.

Does that mean some will get killed, maimed or injured, or some may have to use defense actions while others do not or cannot? Sure.

Inevitably I do not control human lives, although as a leader of troops, I feel that tremendous burden.

At some future day I could lament, and surely other soldiers have silently mourned: “It could happen to anybody, but it happened to them—to us—and now there is an exceeding amount of guilt and pain. What could I have done better? Or rather, I could have done [this or that] and prevented it.”

No, sir. No sparrow or hair of the head falls to the earth, save God knows it.

God has given us wisdom and talents; we’ve educated ourselves and Uncle Sam has trained us, but really we are not in control.

Do we thank God that we lived while others were killed? This is probably the most difficult thing that occurs during tragedies. An atheist recently sent me an email mocking this practice. It’s a tragedy when people die, but it's their time to go home. And, to others who escape and survive, it is a miracle. The universe, stars and planets, all the earth and the glories of creation, and the cycle of life is not as simple as the atheist thinks in his own wisdom it is. But while thanking God for having lived, yet some of us may feel guilty for having been preserved. I believe that God allows courageous men and women to go back to Him once their time here on earth is complete.


I gotta tell ya, it’s hot here in Iraq; and when I think of these young soldiers and their families, well, even though it might not be that manly or tough, I must admit, sometimes a little sweat trickles down from my eyes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

War Contractors: If You Pay Them, They Will Come

I was invited to go to the grand opening of Blackwater USA’s new headquarters building in Moyock, North Carolina last year. Unfortunately I had a work conflict and could not attend, but my buddy, Matthew Graham of, said he had a great personal visit with Erik Prince, BWs founder. Erik drove Matt around the several hundred acre training facility and they talked shop. Unfortunately, Erik has lost several employees. Unlike most company owners, Erik’s employees have died.

Recently I drove over the Euphrates River on a bridge from Fallujah, leading a high-intensity military convoy. The city was riddled with bullet holes and broken-down buildings. The harsh realities of wars’ destruction were evident, but the city was vibrant with life and activity. It wasn’t until I heard of the very controversial Blackwater shooting that took place just west of Baghdad on Sunday that I recalled the March 31, 2004 incident on that bridge in Fallujah. As a former private security contractor, I remember that day all too well.

The news shattered the tight-knit community. Prior to about 2004-05, everyone knew everyone. If you didn’t know a contractor personally, you knew someone who did. It didn’t take long until the e-mails and phone calls started to pour in. “Who were they?” “What were their names?” “What were their backgrounds?” The information couldn’t come fast enough.

The four Blackwater security contractors, killed in an ambush that fateful day, perhaps burned alive in their vehicle, had their eviscerated, avulsed, charred bodies poked and butchered by shovels and sticks. The merciless Iraqi mob spit on their victims’ mutilated bodies and kicked them with the bottom of their shoes—the gravest of all insults. The citizen throng shouted for joy as they danced around the now-rotting flesh, cheering, smiling. Without restraint, the merciless Fallujah mob dragged what was left of the American bodies and hung them from the beams of the bridge, then continued to dance and rejoice.

One of my close friends, a contractor whom I’ll refer to only as “Slim”, spoke with me not long after the incident. Slim had been working for a Private Military Company (PMC) in Iraq and was intimately involved in—and nearly went on—that specific mission. It’s not relevant here to go into further details surrounding Slim’s experience; but, suffice it to say, Slim and a few other friends and associates I knew, were linked to the incident and the people.

Now fast forward to Sunday, September 16, 2007. Things have changed drastically in the PMC community since then. For one thing, contractors (meaning security contractors) have hatched like Spring chicks. There’s a lot of work. Since September 11, 2001, the threat to American’s outside the United States has increased dramatically. The U.S. Department of State, perhaps the government entity that uses contractors the most, simply does not have enough trained and qualified personnel to meet the growing security requirements.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testified to the Senate recently, “There is no alternative except through contracts.”

The Washington Post reported in June 2005 that the State Department would allot a portion of a nearly $1 billion contract over a five-year period to three PMCs, Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp. The contractors would work at 27 high-threat U.S. embassies, protecting U.S. diplomats and personnel.

The government is outsourcing big time. And it’s not going away anytime soon. Consider Tysons Corner, Virginia, the booming area for government contract-based entrepreneurship, just west of DC. It’s not just PMCs that get the contracts, either. My friend Ahmed’s business, Harbinger Technologies Group, Inc, focuses on government contracts as well. (

With the inundation of security contract work, the level of quality personnel has occasionally been sacrificed. I’m not saying by any means that this is the reason why the Blackwater incident on Sunday left eight Iraqi citizens killed and many wounded, but maybe I am…

Sure, there are still some fine operators working and supervising these contracts, but there has been some dross let into the ranks too. The standards were lowered from what it was in the past. The contracts of the past were only passed around by word of mouth. No one wanted to get into a firefight, if it came to that, with someone they didn’t absolutely know and trust. It was a referral based-business only. No loose cannons were permitted. Those awarded the contracts were vetted by peers and trusted colleagues. And, not surprisingly the crème de la crème of protectors and gun fighters came forward from the most elite circles of military, counterterrorism and law enforcement. Many had both.

The paradigm shift in hiring hundreds, even thousands of contractors, means the standards were lowered. Subsequently, increasing the risk of personal security, political dynamics and international relations, as well as increasing the liability of the contract agency/company.

Civilians with no military or law enforcement experience joined the ranks. Young, testosterone-laden lads with four years in the conventional military (vice special ops), no combat experience and a high school diploma could apply to make the kind of money that they could never dream of. Now, there’s a bad mix: scared, young, inexperienced. These types aren’t sure of what to do. Do they exercise patience and restraint? Do they really understand the laws of war and carefully consider target selection or do they indiscriminately kill in the heat of battle and combat stress?

Attorney Davis Brown, an expert on international law and the law of war, said of the Blackwater incident on Sunday, “Unless robust training programs are put into place, such incidents are more likely than not to recur.” Mr. Brown continued, “The incident underscores the need for everyone to be thoroughly trained in the Law of Armed Conflict before and during their deployments. This includes not only military forces [and private military contractors], but also private civilian support contractors, right down to the cooks and janitors.”

Mr. Brown and Liberty Protective Services, LLC ( have joined teams to help educate the war reporters and the media, as well as contracting companies operating in high threat areas.

We need the truth. I’m the first one to stand and say, let’s not be quick to judge this situation. You and I were not there. All of the facts need to be examined. It is especially important that anyone who judges this does so objectively.

It’s terrible if innocents were killed. That is what is seemingly communicated by the accusations at least—that the victims were apparently “totally innocent”, I mean. To say ‘sometimes in war there is an expectable loss’ provides no comfort to the grieving family members! Perhaps that’s why the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to oust the North Carolina-based company from operating in Iraq.

But, who knows…? Were those killed really innocent? Only the most thorough investigation will tell.

Of this Mr. Brown stated, “We don't know yet exactly what happened, and many facts will not come to light until the investigations are completed, which won't be for some time. Even then, we may never have a completely accurate record, because the findings and conclusions of the investigating panels are likely to vary with the political persuasions, biases, and hidden agendas of the investigators.”
“When one side of an armed conflict adopts terrorist tactics and embarks on a deliberate campaign of atrocities,” Mr. Brown continued, speaking of the insurgent population in Iraq, “they create an environment in which many more noncombatant casualties are likely. One reason for this is that they deliberate shield themselves among the civilian population, making it much more difficult to engage them without also harming civilians. The insurgents are directly responsible for these casualties,” he added pointedly. The Virginia-based attorney continued, “The indignation of having to fight an enemy that doesn't fight fairly sometimes unleashes rage, and sometimes, unfortunately, that rage gets directed against innocents. This does not excuse any individuals (on either side) from criminal responsibility for the atrocities they commit, but on some higher the insurgents must bear the responsibility for creating that environment in the first place.”

With the potential disaster this has on the U.S. mission in Iraq, as well as on Blackwater, I see a much greater level of scrutiny for contractors and contracting companies coming down the pipe. Contractors have been long concerned over the law suits and the potential legal trouble they could get into when operating in a foreign country. No contractor should have unlimited carte blanche. But with a strict oversight from government entities and civilian groups who do not fully understand the laws of war and armed conflict from a practical understanding, to include the intricacies of real combat, things could get ugly for the contracting world in a hurry.

In other words, if the quality of personnel is declining now, it may have the tendency to get even worse. Contrary to what some people believe, contractors are not your typical image of blood-thirsty ‘mercenaries’. They’re not pariah cowboys. And, the government cannot afford to lose contractors operating in Iraq or in any other country for that matter, especially a mostly-reputable security contracting company like Blackwater.

Finally, on a personal note, I’m glad no Blackwater guys were kidnapped and beheaded or strung up from any bridge. I guarantee whomever they were protecting was thankful of that too!

Friday, September 14, 2007

I Heard, Felt the Explosion that Killed Sheikh Sattar

Thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear: and from terror; for it shall not come near thee.
—Isaiah 54:14

I happened to be off (a rare occasion) and was partially finished with the majority of this blog when—Kaboom!—the earth rattled and time stood still. The first major explosion since the start of Ramadan (September 13) dealt a devastating blow to U.S. forces and the Sunni tribes here in the al Anbar province. Sheikh Sattar left mortality.

I had just gotten done writing and came into work when I heard the news. “Oh no!” I threw my hands high in the air and grabbed my head as if in physical pain. “That’s terrible.” I figured something bad would soon happen (I’ll tell you why soon), but I wasn’t expecting that.

Sheikh ‘Abd al Sattar Bizi’a Fitikhan al Rishawi, a.k.a. Abu Risha for short, had led a group of influential Sunni tribal leaders against al Qaeda in Iraq. At only 36 or 37 years old, I was surprised he was the leading force of this vanguard movement. It didn’t take too long for him to move into a position of influence (or wasta in Arabic) because all the other sheikhs were fleeing Iraq or getting killed off. In September of last year he came to U.S. forces and volunteered to help. He was determined to fight infectious al Qaeda spawn after they murdered his father and his two brothers. Now he’ll be buried next to them.

He will be missed.

Some al Anbar leaders, supportive of the U.S., have taken refuge in Jordan for fear of their lives. Trying to convince them to return hasn’t been easy. This terrible assassination only exacerbates the problem of trying to get—and keep—worthwhile Iraqi leadership in this province.

Not to fear, though. There are plenty of good Iraqis eager to fight off al Qaeda. They want the bombs to end. They want the killing to stop. They want peace. And, as much as I rue being here, I recognize that people like Sattar and his tribe need our help. Those who want peace from al Qaeda oppressors, willing and eager to behead little Iraqi children in order to intimidate and instill fear, cannot succeed without adequate resources and support.

These terrorists are without principle and past feeling.

Let’s hope the leader who replaces Sheikh Sattar (perhaps his older brother, Sheikh Ahmed), and the hundreds of other Iraqi who yearn for peace, stay safe.

Now, for the rest of the blog. With the exception of my finishing statements (I was nearly finished writing it when duty called), I’m going to leave the words below how I originally wrote them before learning of the full nature of this tragedy. It’s quite ironic.

* * * *

The battle lasted for nearly seven hours. They knew the consequences going into this vulnerable skirmish. It was a high threat mission that few would ever volunteer for. Casualties were expected. Once it began the level of stress and exhaustion was nearly overwhelming. Tempers flared and thoughts of soldiers dying surfaced. Thick tension filled the battle zone like never before. Shocking chills and near-tearful pleas came and went. Demanding, screaming voices could be heard over the sounds of gunfire and car bombs. There was fear, anger, rage, uncertainty and frustration. It was tough. And, the relief seemed days away.

That’s exactly what happened on Monday when the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Patraeus, flanked by Ambassador Ryan Crocker, testified in the Cannon Caucus room in Washington DC.

The al Anbar Awakening

Usama bin Laden and his henchmen want Coalition Forces gone. (Big shocker, I know.) The correlation between Monday’s meeting and the bin Laden video that surfaced just prior came as no surprise. Bin Laden is a strategic planner. Inspired by the truck bomb that drove U.S. forces from Lebanon in the early 80s and Mogadishu a decade later, the Saudi-raised magnate would no doubt seek to repeat that ouster here in Iraq.

To that end, it didn’t take long once Ramadan began, to hear and feel a giant explosion from in the al Anbar providence. I’m here. I’d know. And here’s the warning I’d offer to people back home, especially our law and policymakers: A few terrible attacks in Anbar would benefit anti-Sunni and anti-Coalition Forces greatly. These extremist understand that wrecking havoc in Ramadi, Fallujah and the surrounding area would help them strategically. One gruesome attack would, in effect, give merit to those not looking at the whole picture that, ‘yes, the area is a failure—and, see, there’s our proof,’ they’d say. But that wouldn’t be reality.

The reality is the area has turned. Sunni tribal sheikhs, the ones with the real power, have joined the coalition. Because of that, a drastic change has occurred. Violence has ceased dramatically. There were no ‘cooking’ statistics, as some have accused General Patraeus of doing. I’ve witnessed the downward trend myself. Besides, who can say with confidence that the reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the National Intelligence Estimate are all lies? Well, a lot of people, apparently. Fathom that.

The situation here is not as claimed in their giant Gen. ‘Betray Us’ add in the New York Times, it’s not as some members of Congress, or their spokespersons claim. Nothing about the al Anbar providence is a failure. And, to say the war as a whole is a failure…well, now there’s a topic.

The Un-Surging of Troops

Approaching the delicate we’re at war, now what?-topic literally makes my stomach turn. I think because every aspect of war and fighting is so terrible. But is this war the Vietnam War experience? Rep. Robert Wexler, the Democrat from Florida, who captured all the attention by his virulent comments and contentious remarks, must have planned for days to compare Patraeus’s report to General Westmoreland’s report of the Vietnam War to Congress in 1967. Although there are significant differences, the number of U.S. causalities being the utmost, here’s all I have to say about that:

Throughout history no insurgency has been beaten in four and a half years. The average of those considered successful campaigns have lasted eight or nine years! That’s if everything was done just right. For the most part, though, not many wars that morph into unconventional battles are success stories. Insurgencies are wars like no other. I learned those lessons, and many others from retired Command Sergeant Major Steven Greer, a veteran Special Forces soldier and regular on Fox News. ( And, he ought to know. He does.

I want to go home as badly as the next guy. Being away from home is never fun. Some people have never spent a week away from their spouses, let alone a year! This is the third deployment to Iraq for several of the soldiers I’m with. Handfuls of them have been awarded Purple Hearts for injury sustained in combat. Some have just received them. There are wounds and scars that run deeper than the physical injuries, though. Post traumatic stress has tormented even my best of friends. No one is immune.

The young girls in my daughter’s Sunday School class told her I would die. My six-year-old son is terribly stressed about that. No doubt his school mates say the same thing. I can’t communicate with the smaller kids. The refrigerator and hot water heater broke soon after I left, leaving my sweet wife to fix that, as well as the toilet sewer water that flooded the basement. And that’s just the beginning of it! Forget the stress that comes from being separated and the difficult transition when coming home.

(This is where I left off and inevitably learned about the good Sheikh’s death.)

Less than one percent of American’s serve in the Armed Forces. We cannot sustain the current deployment tempo without serious consequences to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and their families. Even with the downsizing of 20,000 troops, as President Bush indicated would happen in his speech last night, a half dozen tours to Iraq would seem the norm for any career military person—even those in the Reserves or National Guard. If we keep that up, we’d have to implement a draft. America wouldn’t go for that.

A minimal military force would face a barrage of heavy-hitting insurgents. The onslaught of foreign enemy fighters would continue to attack such a force, with renewed vigor. Surely other options are being considered at levels well above my pay grade. For example, would we turn the area over to private military contractors or mercenaries as they’re often referred to as? That might not be far from the truth. But it doesn’t sound that good either, does it? What is needed is support from the locals. The Anbar Awakening has set the perfect example for entire provinces to follow.

Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, oh my

Precipitous withdrawal would make the region even more unstable than it currently is. Setting concrete dates to fully depart would not leave room for future politico-military possibilities and changes. It would destroy foresight. In other words, things could change in the future that might affect the area or our national interests.

When considering strategic and national security-level initiatives, withdrawing now is not an easy decision. There are so many elements and factors to consider. I endorse and favor some downsizing. That seems to be bipartisan. Yet admittedly, I’m torn on what to do. On one hand, I think we need to leave this land forever, never looking back. Let’s secure our own borders. We’ve lost lives and treasure. If we don’t plan on leaving by setting a date, we might be here for the indefinite future. There are a lot of facilities we’ve built here. We didn’t leave Germany or Korea, but we left Vietnam and moved troops from Panama after several years.

On the other hand, considerable downsizing or leaving from the area would leave the vulnerable land open for attacks from terrorist-backed states. The Syrian-backed Hezbollah is seeking to get a foothold in Iraq. The hateful Iranian President and his Shia regime will continue to destabilize the region, by acquiring nuclear weapons in order to ‘wipe Israel off the map’, intimidate the West, et al. Forget the calamity with the homogenous Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

When bin Laden released his video last week, he railed on the U.S. for re-electing Bush and criticized the Democrats for not pulling out of Iraq fast enough. Do we appease the school-yard bully who wants us off his ‘turf’ and who has beaten us up on our land? Or, do we be the ‘bigger man’ and walk away? Either way, UBL has vowed to raise the price of oil to $144 a barrel. It’s his way of making the West suffer and pay the jizyah (poll-tax). I won’t go into the history of jizyah here and now. But, certainly the Whitehouse has considered the implications of oil, Operation Iraqi Freedom and U.S. National Security. As an oil-dependent society, if gas prices rose too high too soon, an economic disaster would occur, perhaps akin to the Great Depression. Of course, I’m leaving a lot of facts out. You can fill in the blanks.

Without public support—the will of the people—I mean the citizens of the U.S., no war can continue with favorable odds. The overarching question to the invasion of Iraq: Was it just? Undoubtedly, the President and his staff have access to greater levels of clandestine intelligence and national security assessments than what is made available, or leaked, to the media. When considering the ballot box in 2008, we must vote for the honorable, good and wise.

Lastly, I’ll end with a copy of a letter I have in my possession written by the Mayor of Tall’ Afar, Ninewa, Iraq. A friend who served in Tall’ Afar at that time provided me a copy. I’m sure the sentiments of the letter still remain unchanged today. It's okay to cry.

“In the Name of God the Compassionate and Merciful

“To the Courageous Men and Women of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who have changed the city of Tall’ Afar from a ghost town, in which terrorists spread death and destruction, to a secure city flourishing with life.

“To the lion-hearts who liberated our city from the grasp of terrorists who were beheading men, women and children in the streets for many months.

“To those who spread smiles on the faces of our children, and gave us restored hope, through their personal sacrifice and brave fighting, and gave new life to the city after hopelessness darkened our days, and stole our confidence in our ability to reestablish our city.

“Our city was the base of operations for Abu Mousab Al Zarqawi. The city was completely held hostage in the hands of his henchmen. Our schools, governmental services, business and offices were closed. Our streets were silent, and no one dared to walk them. Our people were barricaded in their homes out of fear; death awaited them around every corner. Terrorists occupied and controlled the only hospital in the city. Their savagery reached such a level that they stuffed corpses of children with explosives and tossed them into the streets in order to kill grieving parents attempting to retrieve the bodies of their young. This was the situation of our city until God prepared and delivered unto them the courageous soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who liberated this city, ridding it of Zarqawi’s followers after harsh fighting, killing many terrorists, and forcing the remaining butchers to flee the city like rats to the surrounding areas, where the bravery of other 3d ACR soldiers in Sinjar, Rabiah, Zumar and Avgani finally destroyed them.

“I have met many soldiers of the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment; they are not only courageous men and women, but avenging angels sent by The God Himself to fight the evil of terrorism.

“The leaders of this Regiment…embody courage, strength, vision and wisdom. Officers and soldier alike bristle with the confidence and character of knights in a bygone era. The mission they have accomplished, by means of a unique military operation, stands among the finest military feats to date in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and truly deserves to be studied in military science. This military operation was clean, with little collateral damage, despite the ferocity of the enemy. With the skill and precision of surgeons they dealt with the terrorist cancers in the city without causing unnecessary damage.

“God bless this brave Regiment; God bless the families who dedicated these brave men and women. From the bottom of our hearts we thank the families. They have given us something we will never forget. To the families of those who have given their holy blood for our land, we all bow to you in reverence and to the souls of your loved ones. Their sacrifice was not in vain. They are not dead, but alive, and their souls hovering around us every second of every minute. They will never be forgotten for giving their precious lives. They have sacrificed that which is most valuable. We see them in the smile of every child, and in every flower growing in this land. Let America, their families, and the world be proud of their sacrifice for humanity and life.

“Finally, no matter how much I write or speak about this brave Regiment, I haven’t the words to describe the courage of its officers and soldiers. I pray to God to grant happiness and health to these legendary heroes and their brave families.

“[Signed] Najim Abdullah Abid al-Jibouri, Mayor of Tall’ Afar, Ninewa, Iraq”

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sept 11: I don't mean to scare you, but...

September 11, 2007 is nearly here.

WARNING! I don’t mean to scare you but…

If you think I’m not safe here in Iraq, but you are safe there in America, think again. Terrorists in America have the tactical advantage.

—I awoke the other morning to a suicide truck bomb attack. How could I not awake? The entire structure around me shook terribly. Like the majority of these suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs), the target was the local Iraqi police (IP).

Many people choose to call them homicide bombers; I prefer the term suicide bombers. Why not? After all, these so-called religiously inspired fanatics kill themselves in the process of obliterating their victims. That aside, here’s what I was getting to:

Through exhaustive study and research over the years, I have found an interesting pattern. The majority of the attacks using VBIEDs (pronounced Vee-Bids) ever since the early 80s have not had great success compared to what could occur. For example, the terrorist-to-victim death ratio for al Qaeda-backed attacks against the U.S. is roughly 1 terrorist killed to 26 victims. (Note: This figure does not represent al Qaeda in Iraq attacks for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here, but keep reading.) Removing the Bali nightclub and U.S. East Africa embassy attack anomalies would change the ratio to approximately 1 to 12. This has significant implications, which I will soon tell you about. Are you anxious to know? Maybe scared a little…? I would be.

Often VBIED attacks, particularly here in Iraq, account for only 1 terrorist to 1 or 2 or 3 victims killed. That was the case in the bombing a few days ago that startled me out of a peaceful slumber. There are a few exceptions, of course, like the February 2005 attack against IP recruits in Hillah, the January 5, 2006 attack against Shi’ites in Karbala and IP north of Baghdad, and the more recent late August 2007 attack up north. More Iraqis are dying than coalition forces.

War is repulsive.

It is noteworthy to mention here that simultaneous or near-simultaneous attacks of a few suicide attackers have the tendency to bring total number of causalities up. But coordinated attacks require more terrorists, and when more terrorists get involved, they stand the risk of being intercepted by counterterrorist officials. Anyhow, my point is that for the most part, a car or truck bomb attack is not as effective as it could be. That’s the good news, if you want to call it that.

Keep reading. The scary part is just about here.

Considering the size of the explosive-on-wheels, the time taken in planning and gaining materials, and the damage that it could potentially do, the success rate for suicidal jihadists driving conveyances full of high explosives isn’t that great, as mentioned. Even though one death is one too many, that’s reasonably wonderful news. Why? Keep reading. But I’m warning you, it’s not good.

By contrast, consider these ratios. On September 11, 2001, for every 1 of the 19 hijackers who died, of 3,000 killed the odds changed drastically: 1 to 158. (NOTE: I compiled the original research; hence it’s subject to possible mathematical miscalculations and other slight errors. I’m not afraid to admit that my wife does the bills.) What I’m saying is 158 people died to each al Qaeda devil. Do you have any idea what this means?! Can you see the gut-wrenching significance of this? Probably not, but no worries (yet), I will explain.

Having sat as an undercover counterterrorism operator on board numerous aircraft attempting to thwart terrorists—and in some cases doing it—for over three years after 9/11, I have some insight on what these evil men can and want to do to commercial aviation assets and innocent, unsuspecting passengers. In fact, I even ‘predicted’ the method and timing of the London Bomb Plot (the UK-based terror ring who wanted to use suicide bombers to bring down numerous U.S. aircraft over the Atlantic in August 2006), but that’s another story all together.

Here’s the bottom line.

With such powerful odds in al Qaeda’s favor (i.e. 1-to-158 vs. 1-to-a small handful rarely exceeding 10), a much greater success rate than in suicide attacks that occur on the ground, who can doubt al Qaeda will not again try this altitude-based tactic? I would. Hitting a commercial airliner, both an economic and psychologically devastating tactical target, would also kill numerous people. Even better yet (for them), think if this! To bring down one jumbo jet with approximately 250 people on board it, would only take one suicide bomber. Even with two or three shaheed (‘martyrs’), the death ratio odds would still be better than most attacks by far. Even the suicide bombers on foot (person-borne IEDs), particularly active in Israel and Palestine, do not yield that many causalities—not even close.

The terrorists know this. I’m not giving them any ideas. They know even skilled air marshals would have difficulty stopping a suicide bomber. Even as dumb-looking as they are, they are ‘wise’ enough to figure this out. (For example, consider the oaf Richard Reid, the infamous ‘shoebomber’ who failed to detonate his big feet on an American Airlines route from Paris to Miami in December 2003. I don’t like speaking ill of others, but I have to say, it looks like he fell out of an ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. He very well could have done some extensive brain damage at that time, too. Additionally, think of the brain-child who rented the Ryder truck that was used as the truck bomb in the 1993 World Trade Center attack. He went back after the fact to try to get his deposit money back! That’s how he got caught.) Terrorists groups have their dolts. They too, are scared, even though they speak ‘no fear’, that’s simply not true.

Considering the 1-to-over 150 dead ratio when terrorists attack commercial airlines is one of the reasons why recent news reports of multiple probes at airports did not alarm me. It came as no surprise. You know, the batteries, wires and blocks of cheese that more-than-suspicious persons were attempting to smuggle through airport security at various airports across the nation? These test runs—yes, I’m calling them that, ‘test runs’, probes, and rehearsals—using blocks of cheese and other detonating devices represented homemade explosives.

After getting onto a plane, terrorists could assemble these bomb parts in the lavatories. Columnist Annie Jacobsen gained national attention when she and her husband experienced something like this on Northwest flight 329 with 14 supposed Syrian musicians.

Consider this never-told-before surprising revelation. A couple of air marshal friends of mine watched a dozen Middle Eastern males who were grouped together in an airport in the eastern United States begin boarding an airplane two by two in spaced out intervals, as if they pretended not to know each other. My buddy called mission operations control. The watch officer said something even more shocking. “Woah, stay on the line. The exact same thing is happening at D/FW airport.” A rehearsal? A probe? A dry run? I think so. The same thing was likely coordinated at a couple more airports too. I’ve experienced things just as shocking, or even more so.

While I was an air marshal, one media outlet (I forget which one now) reported at the time that nine hijacking plots were thwarted since September 11th. The report indicated that terrorists would use bombs disguised as a cameras, and flashes which were really stun guns. The camera IEDs (a shoe bomb or any other IED) would blow the hardened cockpit door. The stun guns could possibly take out the not-so-undercover air marshals or any resisters, or so the thought went. Interestingly, a camera IED was used to successfully assassinate Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan on September 9, 2001, indicating that al Qaeda has the technical expertise. And, does anyone else besides me see this…? I know the terrorists notice it. When pilots need to use the lavatory or get meals, the hardened cockpit door is opened, leaving the aircraft entirely too vulnerable to a dedicated overwhelming force of terrorists or a hand thrown IED, camera other otherwise. These guys need to wake up!

One tiny female flight attendant once told me, in a very serious tone, “If someone tries to get into the flight deck, I’ll stop them. I’ve taken kick boxing classes.” She then gave a karate chop sign. I’ll give her an ‘A’ for effort and a positive attitude, but realistically…well, it’s not.

The British media reported in mid-June 2006, before the shocking London Bomb Plot revelation, that Islamic terrorists in London had plotted to bring down a plane. One suspect urged another that they didn’t even need to crash the plane into a specific target, just drive it into the ground. They were brainstorming. Eventually these apathetic imps would see the reasoning behind using a suicide bomber. Who needs to get into the cockpit (a.k.a. the flight deck), when that would risk apprehension and use more manpower?

Taking out one single plane (i.e., Boeing 767, 777, or 747) would result in anywhere between 190 - 340 deaths. A suicide bomber could accomplish this well. One suicide bomber could kill anywhere between 190 and 340 people. Wow! That figure is better than the ratio killed by the 9/11 hijackers (1 suicide terrorist to 158 persons killed). Such an attack could kill more than the first suicide truck bomb attack on the U.S. Marine Corps barracks did in Lebanon in the 80s (241 killed). Remember, that attack largely inspired the use of suicide terror.

It’s sickening. The factors just increased dramatically to 1 ‘martyr’ dead for 250-plus killed. Even better, if they can pull it off, they won’t have to use suicide bombers, but more on that later. It’s uncanny and nauseating.

On August 24, 2004, two Islamic radical Chechen “black widows” successfully detonated themselves in two separate planes over Moscow. Everyone on board both planes died.
The radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al Masri encouraged his followers in early 2006 to use suicide bombers to bring down commercial aircraft. His former followers included Zacarais Moussaoui, the ‘20th hijacker’ and Richard Reid, the ‘shoe bomber’. In fact, this London-based cleric helped motivate the London tube (subway) attackers (7/7, London’s 9/11), as well as others. Consider the London Bomb Plot link now. A little so-called religious [mis]guidance can go a long way.

Since an average plane carries at the low end, 100 passengers, bringing down a plane would be a more attractive target than most, not to mention the symbolic and psychological impact it would carry in a post-9/11 America. To make matters worse, to bring down a plane al Qaeda would not even have to sacrifice a single ‘martyr’. Terrorists could use an IED in the un-inspected cargo or checked in luggage. Terrorists could use the same tactics they applied in the 1995 Bojinka Plot: plant a bomb on the plane, leave the plane and catch a connection, then Kaboom!

There go a dozen planes scattered over the Pacific Ocean. Terrorists could shoot down planes with surface-to-air missiles, place a VBIED under an airplane’s flight path, or ram a VBIED into a loaded taxiing plane on the tarmac. All of these tactics and techniques would not require sacrificing a bomber. Those suicide terrorists could be saved for future operations.

Now, back to VBIEDs.

Car and truck bombs will continue. Terrorist use what works. VBIEDs work. And even though the aim of hundreds dead isn’t always the end result for these blood-thirsty vermin, the death toll still occasionally gets way too high. Moreover, since there has occasionally been a tremendous amount of deaths by sacrificing one or two shaheed per VBIED attack, we can assume al Qaeda will keep this tactic and undoubtedly use it over and over, perhaps in America very soon.

The targets for suicide VBIEDs may be varied from high rise buildings to apartment complexes, or hotels to crowded commercial airports. I believe that high rise buildings stand the greatest threat (i.e., Sears Tower or other less popular and not well secured buildings). The psychological shock value, not to mention the loss of life or economic ruin, would appeal to terrorists.

I had a passion for countering terror way before 9/11, so I often held my breath when walking from the crowded entryway of the airports to deep into the back. Why? Because even several years after 9/11 there are still airports that are terribly vulnerable to a car, van or truck driving into—or close enough to—the huge ticket counter lines. I gasped hard one day a few years ago when I learned through the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) an airport bus was stolen. I had previously envisioned such carnage. Steal it, pack it with explosives and blow it up. To make matters worse, training and prevention methods were not being implemented in a way to best stop it.

Now I’m getting into why I left the FAMS, so let’s get back on track.

Reports and trends indicate that al Qaeda seeks to use limos or emergency service vehicles, or buses in this case, as VBIEDs since those vehicles can usually get closer to a target. Moreover, semi trucks, buses and other large moving vehicles are also being sought. For instance, the terror suspects in Canada last year who purchased several tons of ammonium nitrate (a.k.a. fertilizer) and fuel oil (ANFO) to use like Timothy McVeigh did in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

A growing number of Somalis in Minneapolis and Columbus are attending truck driving school. (Note: Just in case you didn’t know, Somalia is an al Qaeda bastion.) Many Middle Eastern men have gotten commercial drivers licenses in the U.S. Too, semi trucks carrying highly toxic and flammable materials that could be used as explosives have been stolen. They’ve disappeared.

These could be easily converted into drivable bombs and driven virtually anywhere there is concrete.

Sure, al Qaeda elements and the global safalist movement have had an interest in chemical and biological weapons. But in all likelihood, a jihad-inspired group will stick to what works. They’ll stick to what they know. Chemical attacks would have spread rapidly after the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Japanese subway had it been something Islamically-based terror groups seriously wanted. Even the chlorine bomb attacks here in Iraq haven’t worked as planned. (Keep your fingers crossed.) Chemical attacks have taken a back seat to high explosives. Ever since terrorism raised its ugly head, that has been the case.

There is a tacit feeling, and conversely an openly expressed notion, that the federal government must protect its people 100 percent of the time. That’s not possible. Even Dr. Condi Rice, as the National Security Advisor, said in her testimony to the 9/11 Commission, the odds that we can stop every plan, attack or incident are 1 to 100.

No person, group or organization can or should expect perfection in the government’s ability to keep us totally safe all the time. That is simply an unreasonable request. Can more be done? Sure. Should more be done? Absolutely. But you and I can’t only blame the government nor leave it all upon the government’s shoulders, as if ‘the government’ is some superhuman saving power instead of a group of humans with strengths and weaknesses just like you and I. We’re each to blame: every person, every company, every organization. It’s up to us to make the difference. (Quick marketing message: check out my website at I’m also an attitude coach and conference speaker. Seriously. Hey, I couldn’t resist.)

If we can demand perfection on an individual, a group, or a monolithic government, we should do some serious self-introspection. We should ask ourselves: what can I do to better perfect my own life, my own circumstances and the sphere of influence I have some control over?

Finally, mourning the loss of single military service members killed here in the desert wasteland is profound beyond expression. The grief and heartache experienced when fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines depart from this life is nothing, however, compared to the burden of depression which attacks the heartstrings and soul of their loving family back home. I cannot fathom that pain. One death is too many.

Needless to say, while I’m dodging car bombs here in Iraq, just remember this. I’m expecting it. I’m looking for it. Most American’s are oblivious to the threat back home. Note this: Terrorists will wait. They will find the perfect target. They have plenty of opportunity to hold out and find the biggest crowds for the biggest effects.

There are only two reasons why another major terrorist attack hasn’t occurred on American soil. First, the terrorists are waiting for the opportune time. Secondly, Divine intervention. I believe it’s more the latter than the former. Because while it’s difficult, collectively, we can ‘handle’ one or two Americans dying at a time here in a somewhat forgotten battle zone; but having 100, 200, 300 or 3,000 die again, all at once, in America at the hands of wicked murderers would devastate the spirit and cripple tender hearts.

I earnestly pray that terrorists won’t do more damage here or back home, but as the Arabs often say—inshallah, God willing.

God bless America and keep her safe. And, God bless the troops.